The Business of the Church – Part 1

And the Jews’ passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise. And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up. John 2:13-17

The money changers and sellers of livestock (for sacrifices) started out with perfectly good and helpful intentions, helping those who were sometimes coming from great distances to visit the Temple to make sacrifice, and, in the process, paying the Temple tax.

The benign enterprise, however, grew into something that no longer existed for the sake of God’s people. It came to exist for its own sake. What started as what could be termed, loosely, as a ministry to people became a profit and loss equation. At that point, the Temple served only as a “house of merchandise.” Such a transformation is perverse, a form of idolatry where the object of interest isn’t God but something else.

I submit that a similar affliction exists among the Orthodox of North America. Fundraisers for specific needs, building programs, church ministries are established, but then things change over time. The fundraiser comes to be used for general needs and even exists as an ongoing venture. (How big is the fundraiser line item in the church budget?) The building program is established for the sake of a beautiful edifice, but, then, how much of the parish’s time, money, and energy is then diverted away from mission as a result? How often are visitors viewed, not as souls, but as contributors to our debt service?  Concerning our ministries, how many of them exist because we dare not cease funding a program, even one that distracts us from what we are supposed to be doing as Church?

For the sake of mission, it’s time to stop looking inward, to end the focus on the profit/loss equation in whatever form, and to start (or restart) looking outward. To depend on fundraisers for parish support is to transfer our personal financial responsibility to other people. These “other people” are often the very ones who should be recipients of our evangelism rather than our secular marketing. To establish a building program (concomitantly incurring large amounts of debt) or an athletic league because doing so “will attract people” or for any reason other than building up the faithful is to see people as numbers rather than individuals made in the image of God.

I realize that, in saying these things, some of my own clergy brethren will take exception to them. What I ask is that some Scriptures be considered: Exodus 3:22, Exodus 25:1-9, Romans 15:22-32, 1 Corinthians 16:1-3. Are these inward- or outward-looking? What is the difference between Exodus 3 and the others? How do we differentiate what we do from what the money changers did?

With that, I’ll end this first installment. I also make a quiet apology for the lack of polish of this installment, which was written in haste. I did, however, wish to have a new post up for the weekend. There will be more early in the week.

In any event, please post your comments, especially if you have more Scriptures to point out. (Approvals may be slow until Saturday afternoon.)

2 comments on this post.
  1. Trudy Ellmore:

    May I offer Malachi 3:9-11 which reads, “(9)You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. (10) Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. (11) I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,” says the LORD Almighty.

    Here God tells *us* to “bring in the tithe” to His house. Why? So that there may be food. What kind of food? I suggest it is spiritual food because without the Church we have no spiritual or Divine Food on which we can grow. And what does God do for us? He protects and provides. Not just in the house but in the fields (the mission).

    In the five years I’ve been in the Orthodox church, I’ve not ever heard this taught. Not once. Why not? Do not our own leaders believe this?

    I suggest that they do but they lack the courage to say it. I remember my husband saying once, “It is hard being the pastor. The parish controls your paycheck. When you anger them, they can withhold it and your family suffers.” That was when he was a pastor of a protestant church many, many years ago. Now that he “guest preaches” once in awhile, he said it is easier to say the hard things since you are not dependent for your livelihood.

  2. Mark C. Phinney:

    This subject is an explosive topic in the parish I attend. Over the past 35 years, the annual bazaar has been just the sort of means of parish support described in Fr. Basil’s installment. For all but a handful of years, the parish has depended upon the proceeds of the bazaar to help cover its operating expenses. Anyone questioning the propriety of depending on outsiders to meet the annual budget receives a minor firestorm of criticism. Pointing out that it is a responsibility of the members of the parish to provide for the parish clergy and cover the rest of the operating expenses is seen as an extreme breach of good manners.

    My parish is not a poor parish; quite the contrary. Our members are almost exclusively upper middle-class professionals and managers in local and federal government, as well as private industry. What they seem to lack is an awareness of their responsibility to fnancially support the parish. I know that my pastor is very uncomfortable in dealing with the subject of finances within the parish, and at the national church level during his tenure on the Metropolitan Council. At the parish level, we seem to muddle through without ever hearing about the financial responsibilities of the individual members of the faithful, even in very general terms, from our pastor or our Parish Council President; the “T-word” (tithing) is never mentioned in “polite company” within the parish … except among those of us who have spent time around American Evangelical Protestants.

    Part of the problem may have to do with the education of the clergy in our seminaries. Is there any course, or courses, in which the seminarians cover the Orthodox teachings concerning the proper stewardship and its theological basis? Is there any course that covers the education — initial or remedial — of the faithful in proper stewardship?

    Another part of the problem is the flip side: is there any commonly accepted catechical subject that includes the Orthodox standards for proper stewardship? Is there an appreciation among the hierarchy and the rest of the clergy of the necessity of remedial catechetical teaching to insure that the laity does in fact have the education in what constitutes proper stewardship? From what I’ve seen during my 24 years as an Orthodox Christian, the answer to both questions is “No”.